In an interview this weekend on "60 Minutes," President Barack Obama, responding to questions about the tone of the presidential campaign and the often-ugly TV ads made on his behalf, said this:
Do we see sometimes us going overboard in our campaign — are there mistakes that are made or areas where there's no doubt that somebody could dispute how we are presenting things? You know, that happens in politics.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney still won’t release more than two years of full tax returns.
What do these two situations have to do with each other and the election? Everything.
Despite baseless Republican assertions to the contrary, Barack Obama has sought from Day One to take responsibility for his actions as president. So, after three and a half years in which Republicans have blocked every piece of legislation Obama has proposed and generally been as uncooperative as possible — economic recovery be damned — Obama repeated this weekend what he has said before: “I take full responsibility for everything that we do."
And yet Mitt Romney still refuses to take responsibility even for his own tax returns. Former colleagues of Romney’s report that Romney would have never even run for president if he thought he’d be pressed to release his tax returns. And then we see that, of the meager tax returns Romney does release, 2011 is altered to take a lower charitable deduction so that the governor’s effective tax rate is a still relatively low 13 percent instead of an embarrassingly low 9 percent. While President Obama appeals to voters as a straightforward and self-critical human being, Mitt Romney comes across as a cold and opaque elitist. Romney doesn’t think “the people” deserve to see his tax returns, let alone an accurate accounting of his tax rate and foreign investments.
And then consider Romney’s two most prominent missteps as of late — a very inaccurate and dangerous statement about surging violence in the Middle East and his secretly recorded statements writing off 47 percent of Americans as dependent "victims." Pretty much any other politician imaginable would walk these remarks back. Heck, even Todd Akin apologized after his abominable statements on “legitimate rape.” But Romney? No, he actually doubled down in both instances — defending his reckless remarks and turning what could have been mere gaffes into central pillars of his campaign.
Part of what makes President Obama likable is his willingness to be the mature adult in the room, and lead not with bullheaded self-righteousness but with self-reflection and deliberation. And when things go wrong, he is willing to take the blame — even if he doesn’t entirely deserve it. Voters don’t expect their leaders to be perfect (see, e.g., the reelection of Bill Clinton and most every moment of George W. Bush’s career). But voters do want their leaders to be human.
When President Obama, in the wake of the Libyan violence, issued a statement affirming America’s values, including the value of freedom of religion on which a hateful anti-Islam video had trampled and was inflaming violence around the globe, he was not only acting presidential but human: responding to the imminent threat to United States’ interests and also acting with the kind of compassion we expect from world leaders faced with suffering and violence. The presidential and human thing for Mitt Romney to have done would be to issue a statement standing with the president during a time of international threat and saying differences on the response could be debated later. But instead, Mitt Romney issued an I-know-better-than-everyone blowhard statement that was not only factually wrong but dangerous.
And while President Obama has taken personal responsibility for the ugly tone of the election before and condemned it, has Mitt Romney taken responsibility for ad after ad and speech after speech that fact checkers have shredded? No, Romney is too busy blaming the president for everything under the sun to take responsibility for his own mess.
Character matters in elections. It’s how we decide whether a candidate, when faced with unforeseeable circumstances, will make the right call. We don’t want self-assured elitists who are convinced of their own righteousness and everyone else’s inferiority. We want a president who is human — who's willing to learn and reflect and strive to do what’s best, and willing to take responsibility for mistakes. It’s ironic that Mitt Romney criticized poor people, seniors and Obama supports as unwilling to take “personal responsibility” for their own lives. Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to think he should take responsibility for anything.